We find ourselves in complex and dangerous times. With dwindling resources and a ravenous appetite for accountability, our leaders are increasingly reticent to take risks or overcommit. While understandable, this reluctance can translate into work environments that feel uninspired and lacking vision, leaving many professionals yearning for better opportunities and more meaningful impact.
Although I am sympathetic to individuals who find themselves in these situations and seek greener pastures, I am convinced that there are always opportunities for growth, even in the most constricting environments. Here is a trick for identifying potentially interesting opportunities….
Embrace the hot potato.
The hot potato is the expansive category of activities that no one seems to want to own. Typically, it includes tasks that are time consuming and low profile in terms of the associated recognition and rewards. They may include dealing with problem clients, partners, or customers, cleaning up mistakes or oversights, or smoothing out interpersonal dynamics or discord. Or perhaps they involve pushing out ambiguous or ill-conceived ideas, finding solutions to problems, or being adaptable in times of change.
Although when viewed individually, these specific activities may seem unimportant since they are often not valued, incentivized, or even included in our performance evaluations, they can represent important foundational investments on which we can build. And when bundled together under higher level frames such as commitments, responsibilities, values, or strengths they can become valuable assets to be leveraged both within and outside our respective organizations as opportunities shift and reveal themselves over time.
For me, my hot potatoes have included a deep commitment to relationships and community collaboration. Despite ever-changing institutional priorities around engagement and outreach, I have developed and maintained lasting connections with individuals and organizations that go well beyond my specific roles and duties (which have also shifted and changed). Ironically, although I don’t always feel that they are valued, these connections are largely responsible for my continued success and fulfillment, allowing me to flex and respond to new opportunities, challenges, and developments.
Clearly, it is natural to hold high expectations for our leaders and feel disappointed when they are not met. But by observing the gaps in leadership and our own natural responses and contributions to make things right or better- even if they seem to be unrecognized or undervalued- we can begin to create space for our own growth and movement. By owning our contributions and framing them within higher level values, principles, and commitments, we can begin to become more sensitive to the contextual challenges and limitations that frame the work of our leaders and our broader units and institutions.
Once we find ourselves seeing voids in leadership as opportunities for ownership, and vice versa, a remarkable transformation begins to occur. We start to become the very leaders that we seek, and suddenly our work environments become less threatening, we feel more competent and fulfilled, and ready for the new challenges and opportunities that arise.